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SDSU Beefs Up Sexual Assault Policies; Critics Ask Why It Took So Long

Above: San Diego State University's Hepner Hall.

Aired 8/25/14 on KPBS News.

While San Diego State University’s incoming freshman class spent the summer saying goodbye to high school friends, the school's administrators were scrambling to react to a state investigation critical of the university’s policies on sexual assault.

While San Diego State University’s incoming freshman class spent the summer saying goodbye to high school friends, the school's administrators were scrambling to react to a state investigation critical of the university’s policies on sexual assault.

SDSU was thrust into the spotlight in June, along with UCLA, the University of California Berkeley and Chico State, for what the state said was a poor job of educating incoming freshmen about sexual violence. The state audit also admonished the school for not training faculty and staff in how to respond to reports of sexual assault.

When SDSU’s 30,000 students arrive for the first day of classes Monday, they will find new policies in place and plans for others — like a new rape crisis advocate on staff — by October.

That’s good news to rape survivors and their advocates.

Still, they’re asking: What took so long?

“As someone who has been on this campus since I was a graduate student, starting in 2003 I was asking for a lot of the things that came out in the audit ... and I wasn’t alone,” said Jeff Bucholtz, co-founder of We End Violence, which provides educational training on sexual violence.

“The campuses knew these problems existed,” Bucholtz said. “They knew it.”

According to a study funded by the U.S. Justice Department and released in April, one in five college women will be the victim of a rape or an attempted rape by the time she graduates. Victims often know their perpetrators, and attacks happen most frequently in students’ first and second years in college.

How colleges handle sexual assaults has been receiving widespread attention in the news media and at the highest levels of government. In January, the White House set up a task force to combat sexual assaults on campuses.

In California, a bill making its way through the Assembly will strengthen prevention programs at UC and CSU schools, and it will set a new standard for defining consensual sex in college disciplinary hearings.

Getting oriented to the problem

When new students attended freshman orientation on the SDSU campus in July, they watched a presentation — without their parents — on sexual violence. It included a PSA featuring celebrities (actor and comedian Seth Meyers was one) and a statement from President Barack Obama. The bulk of the presentation was a PowerPoint, explaining what sexual assault actually is, how to report it and the services SDSU offers to students.

People at Montezuma Road and College Avenue intersection wait for the street lights to change, Aug. 22, 2014.

Last year’s presentation was five minutes long. This year, it clocked in at 32 minutes.

Title IX Coordinator

SDSU is required to designate a Title IX coordinator who is available to explain and discuss how to file a criminal complaint (sexual assault and sexual violence); the university’s complaint process, including the investigation process; how confidentiality is handled; available resources, both on and off campus; and other related matters.

Title IX Coordinator: Jessica Rentto, associate vice president, (619) 594-6017, jrentto@mail.sdsu.edu

Title IX Deputy Coordinators: Lee Mintz, director, Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities, (619) 594-3069, lmintz@mail.sdsu.edu

For complaints against faculty, staff and visitors: Thom Harpole, director, Office of Employee Relations and Compliance, (619) 594-6464, tharpole@mail.sdsu.edu

For complaints relating to athletics: Jenny Bramer, associate athletic director/SWA, Department of Intercollegiate athletics, (619) 594-0394, jbramer@mail.sdsu.edu

“Previously the orientation on sexual violence was relatively minimal,” said Jessica Rentto, SDSU’s Title IX coordinator. Sexual assaults fall under Title IX, a 1972 federal law that bans sex discrimination in education. Rentto said she beefed up the orientation following the audit.

Incoming freshman Julie Sahyoun remembers the presentation well. She spoke to KPBS six weeks later, while moving into her dorm. “We all know those things happen, but we don’t like to talk about it, so it’s good that they inform us about it,” Sahyoun said.

The presentation included candid, short video interviews with college women who have been assaulted. Some of them described in detail what happened to them.

The audit said the presentation is given too early, saying that freshman should learn about sexual assaults during their first week on campus so it’s fresh in their minds. Rentto said that’s impossible.

“There’s no way to do an orientation for 7,000 students all at one time, so we have to spread it out over the summer,” she said.

Rentto said all students will receive an email when school starts with a link to the presentation.

Freshmen women are the most vulnerable to being raped, especially early in the fall semester. There’s even a name for this period. It’s called the Red Zone.

Young people are living away from home for the first time. No one is telling them what to do, and they are introduced to a party scene with plenty of alcohol. One well-known study shows that perpetrators of sexual attacks on college campuses often target freshmen by getting them drunk.

SDSU police Capt. Joshua Mays said sexual assaults on SDSU’s campus tend to follow a pattern. “From my experience here, I can tell you that alcohol is normally involved and [the assault] is most likely happening in a party setting,” Mays said.

Campus police statistics show the Red Zone is a real phenomenon at SDSU, just like it is on campuses around the country, he said.

From 2010 through July 2014, SDSU police received 65 sexual assault reports. Of the 40 assaults in which the age of the victim is known, more than half were 18 or 19.

Credit: Brooke Ruth/KPBS

This graphic shows the number of sexual assaults that were reported to SDSU from 2010 through July 31, 2014. In 2010, there were 15 cases; 12 in 2011; 21 in 2012; nine in 2013; and eight in 2014.

Colleges and universities that receive public funds are required to report specific campus crimes to the U.S. Department of Education under the Clery Act. From 2010 to 2012, the two-year period most recently available for other schools in the region, the University of California San Diego reported 26 sexual assaults; the University of San Diego seven; San Diego City College three; and California State University San Marcos two.

Just last week, Cal State San Marcos, which has roughly 10,000 students, revealed an investigation into multiple sexual assaults by members of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, an organization no longer recognized by the university but whose members are students.

Over 75 schools nationwide are under investigation by the federal government for underreporting or mishandling sexual assaults on their campuses. None of the universities in San Diego County are being investigated.

What’s really going on

Experts say the number of assaults reported to police doesn’t reflect what’s really happening on a campus. Most college students won’t report a rape.

Research from a 2005 to 2007 study found that only 12 percent of student victims report assaults to law enforcement. The study, funded by the U.S. Justice Department, involved two college campuses, one in the South and one in the Midwest.

For SDSU, which has a large commuter population, the assaults don't all happen on campus. They can occur five blocks away or in Pacific Beach or even in another city. Those sexual assaults fall under the jurisdiction of city police or the Sheriff's Department and are generally not reflected in campus numbers.

Advocates say the only way to get an accurate read on the problem is through an anonymous survey, or a “campus climate survey.” The White House task force has encouraged universities to conduct them.

“It’s really historically been the only way to gather accurate data about real frequency of interpersonal violence on campuses,” said Bucholtz with the group We End Violence.

SDSU plans to do an anonymous survey this academic year. Rentto and other SDSU officials say one of their challenges is getting a handle on how many assaults actually happen on campus. One wasn't done sooner, she said, because it fell through the cracks.

“I think a lot of us play different roles on campus with respect to Title IX and sexual violence awareness. The campus climate survey may not fit neatly in any one of our buckets,” Rentto said.

Bucholtz said the large bureaucracy at a university can stifle progress. “It’s not like anyone there wants more rapes to happen. But in a bureaucratic institution, to take one step forward it takes five departments to have a meeting,” he said. “It slows you down as you’re trying to do stuff.”

Students wander the streets around SDSU, Aug 22, 2014

Confirming the number of sex assaults might be difficult, but critics say prevention and education are exactly what universities should be doing well — and most aren’t. For example, the June audit of the four campuses pointed out that SDSU doesn’t train its entire faculty on how to respond to a student who confides in them about a rape.

“Probably the most common scenario that I get is a victim coming to me and they’ve already reported the sexual assault to a faculty member,” said Gail Mendez, an attorney who works with student survivors of sexual assault at the Center for Community Solutions, the local rape crisis center.

Mendez said she often sees untrained faculty members saying all the wrong things to assault victims.

“They tell the student, ‘Maybe it was just a misunderstanding.’ They discourage the student from going forward, telling them how hard it will be,” she said. “We know that the first person a victim talks to is a pivotal point of conversation that’s really going to determine whether that victim gets any kind of services at all, counseling, legal whatever it is.”

Rentto said she hopes to mandate training for all staff this year, but that has to be negotiated with the union.

Reporting a campus rape

When a student reports a rape, whether it’s to campus police or a resident adviser in the dorms, he or she is given a series of options, including a referral to the school’s Counseling and Psychological Services, commonly known as “Counseling and Psych.” This is one of the only options that will guarantee a victim complete confidentiality, which can be important to a recent trauma survivor.

Resources At SDSU For Sexual Assault Victims

SDSU Counseling & Psychological Services: (619) 594-5220 (non-emergency)

Counseling Access & Crisis Line: (888) 724-7240, www.sa.sdsu.edu/cps/

Student Health Services, Calpulli Center: (619) 594-5281, shs.sdsu.edu/index.asp

SDSU Police Department: (619) 594-1991

Center for Community Solutions: (888) 385-4657 (bilingual rape crisis hotline), ccssd.org

But Counseling and Psych are attending to the mental health of the entire student population, and some say services are spotty.

One woman, who agreed to tell her story but only if her name wasn’t used, tried to access those services shortly after she arrived at SDSU as a freshman. She had been sexually assaulted a few months before the school year started, and by October she was depressed and contemplating suicide.

When the university learned she was suicidal, she said she was placed in a psychiatric hospital for 48 hours, after which she was told to contact Counseling and Psych for ongoing treatment. When she called the next day, still fragile and exhausted, she said she was told it would take six weeks to get a preliminary appointment.

She never tried again and ended up transferring to another college at the end of the year.

Experts and advocates say examples like this are the reason they have long pushed for a full-time rape crisis advocate on campus, someone who would support and shepherd a survivor through the process every step of the way. State auditors recommended hiring such an advocate in their report to the school. SDSU now plans to open a women’s center staffed by a rape crisis advocate. Rentto hopes to have it up and running in October.

SDSU set up a sexual assault task force this summer to guide their policy changes. The school is also going to require that high-risk groups like fraternities and athletes get additional sexual violence education through an online program.

Pat Sayhoun, who last week helped her daughter Julie move in to her dorm room on the east side of SDSU’s campus, said she’s glad for the university’s renewed focus on sexual assaults. In fact, she said, her daughter’s friends are finding that orientations at a lot of colleges are emphasizing sexual assault prevention.

But Sayhoun said she also plans to keep her own lines of communication open with daughter as she launches her college career.

“You don’t want to make them paranoid or scared, so I think as parents we need to revisit it and talk about what it means to them,” she said. “Because as parents, we know our kids.”

Evening Edition

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